The Winnipeg Jets have long espoused that they conform to a ‘draft and development’ team-building model. It’s a paternal concept, relying heavily on drafting and developing wunderkinds, as opposed to acquiring organizational talent through free-agent acquisition or trade.
In many respects, the draft and develop model for the Winnipeg Jets has been one borne out of necessity. Overtly, Winnipeg is not the mecca of landing spots for professional athletes (or otherwise). Rightly or wrongly, no commodity market is equitable, as there will always exist ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Winnipeg happens to fall into the latter category.
Regardless, a tenant of any successful NHL franchise’s mantra includes some aspect of drafting good players, and then maximizing their potential. It’s not a unique strategy in professional sports.
So, how have the Jets 2.0 fared in their 13 years of drafting and developing talent? To answer that query, we need to establish what constitutes draft success, and what is meant by ‘developing’.
Let’s use Nik Ehlers as our proverbial straw man.
Drafted 9th overall in the 2014 draft, Nik Ehlers has recorded the 7th most points of the 2014 draft class (396), behind only: Draisaitl (744), Pasternak (617), Point (463), Reinhart (444), Larkin (437), and Nylander (430). Pasternak, Point and Larkin were relative steals from the 2014 vintage – all of whom were drafted after Ehlers.
As you might imagine, point totals alone are inadequate for measuring a player’s overall value, particularly for defensemen and goalies. We need a more holistic way of objectively assessing a draftee’s impact.
If measured by “Point Shares” (an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player) Ehlers is 5th overall and is similarly 5th in WAR from 2015-23. To be clear, draft success is not entirely an empirical number that can be quantified without some level of subjectivity. Availability, injuries, team need, and draft strength all play a role in the evaluation, but let’s stick to the numbers for the sake of argument.
Objectively then, Ehlers has been a draft success.
Now, what about development? The fact that Ehlers has been with the Jets for 8 years and is signed “long-term” is not an acceptable benchmark for development. Development means deploying a player strategically to maximize their efficiency and ultimately their value. As discussed earlier, Ehlers received the 8th most ice time/game last season amongst forwards and has been “waiting his turn” behind an aging and less productive right-winger – Blake Wheeler. It is not controversial to say that Nik Ehlers’ development has been mismanaged.
How have the Winnipeg Jets fared with the ‘draft and develop’ model: Draft
Now that we have defined the parameters, let’s broaden the scope. ‘Draft and develop’ doesn’t just apply to first rounds picks. Seemingly, most players picked in the first round arrive in the league with skillsets easily transferrable to the NHL game – otherwise, they wouldn’t be first-round picks. Objectively, the Jets have been successful at drafting in the first round, particularly in the early part of the first round. Scheifele, Ehlers, Connor, Morrissey and even Laine were all good draft picks.
The Jets have been far less successful drafting and developing players outside of the 1st round. To understand why we’ll turn to Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score Value Added model (GSVA). The model tabulates an expected number of wins/GSVA for each team’s draft capital and then compares that to what they actually garnered. Based on that model, from 2011-21 the Jets rank 23rd based on the GSVA of players drafted outside of the 1st round.
Take a moment to guess which team ranks 1st. I’ll save you the time – it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL has seen in decades.
How have the Winnipeg Jets fared with the ‘draft and develop’ model: Develop
The Jets struggle mightily in their development of talent, specifically defenseman (1st round or otherwise). Logan Stanley (1st round), Ville Heinola (1st round), Johnathan Kovacevic (3rd round), Leon Gawanke (5th round) and Declan Chisholm (5th round) are all nodding vigorously in agreement.
Logan Stanley and Leon Gawanke have openly and aggressively asked to be traded out of Winnipeg. Ville Heinola has intimated the same. Kovacevic, who was released on waivers in October 2022, has now found a role as the best defenseman on an albeit terrible Montreal Canadiens squad:
6’5” defensively sound puck-moving defensemen are coveted, and the Jets gifted one simply by way of an unforced error.
One of the issues is that the Jets have eschewed the ‘draft and develop’ principle as it relates to their D-core. Dillon, Schmidt, Pionk, and DeMelo were all brought in via trade. Those 4 players represent 22.3% of the Jets’ salary cap and $19M in total salary.
The motif for Jets management has been to allow talented defensemen to languish in favor of aging and/or overvalued talent. Are Dillon and DeMelo perfectly serviceable defensive defensemen? Absolutely. But are they replaceable NHL players? Same answer.
Declan Chisholm was voted to the AHL All-Star Team in 2023, but his fate will undoubtedly be to share press box minutes with Stanley and Heinola – as the Jets don’t seem interested in moving any of their expensive defensemen.
The folly of operating in this manner is twofold. Firstly, it creates a salary cap bottleneck and prevents the organization from spending its’ capital where needed (i.e. 3rd and 4th line forward help). Secondly, it is a misuse of assets. Using draft capital to infuse your AHL affiliate with talent only to have that talent leave without recompense is negligent.
The “Curious Case of Mikey Essyimont”
The mismanagement of assets is not confined to the blue line. Adam Lowry has been the only consistent presence on the Jets forward “checking” lines for years. To illustrate, let me present the “Curious Case of Mikey Essyimont”, New Mexico’s prodigal son. Eyssimont wasn’t drafted by Winnipeg, but his story is familiar and apropos.
Eyssimont played 19 games this year before he was placed on waivers by the Jets and subsequently claimed by the San Jose Sharks. On March 1, the Sharks traded Eyssimont to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Vladislav Namestnikov, who in turn was traded to the Jets for a 4th-round pick. To recapitulate, the Jets gave up a fourth-round pick to acquire the equivalent of a guy they gave away for free. Not ideal.
Additionally, while RAPM models are not flawless, according to Evolving Hockey, Eyssimont was far better statistically than each of Namestnikov, AJF, Gagner, Stenlund and Saku Maenalanen this year. More importantly, Eyssimont is difficult to play against. His effort and grit were noticed each game, even if the results were occasionally specious. Was Saku Maenalanen difficult to play against? Well, he was difficult to watch – I know that much.
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In the end, ‘draft and develop’ is a mindset – one that has been deployed inconsistently in some instances, and negligently in others. As a result, the Jets have too many defensemen, and too few forwards. Ultimately, there is no one ‘right’ way to build a successful NHL contender, other than ‘smartly’. Let’s adopt that model instead.